BY CLAUS BREEDE
This is the beginning of a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
MILDRED HAD lived in the apartment over top of Walter’s Hardware Store, right on Main Street, ever since her no good husband Charlie had walked out on her almost twenty years ago. They had raised three kids and had been married for almost 30 years when he, as everyone in town liked to say, “Traded her in for a younger model.” Nobody knew if that was true or not, but it made for a great story and everyone instantly felt sorry for Mildred. At first that helped a bit but it didn’t take long before even that began to get annoying. It had been pretty tough at first but over the years it got a bit easier as the gossip died down; and when the pain had almost gone away when her full government pension finally kicked in. It also helped that whenever the subject on the rent for her apartment came up, Walter never seemed to want to talk about increasing it.
“I am just real happy to have someone nice and quiet, like you, living here on top of my store.” He told her. “It sort of helps me to keep an eye on the place when I’m not around.” He never failed to add, nudging her elbow ever so gently. “Besides, you don’t miss much. Do you?”
He was right about that. Mildred didn’t miss much. Her joints weren’t as good as they used to be, but she took pride in the fact that even at her age, her hearing and her eyesight were as good as they had ever been even when she was a little girl.
The apartment was perfect for her. She loved that small apartment with its large bay window in the living room. It stuck out over the sidewalk below. She had her favorite rocking chair in that window. Sometimes she felt like she was the captain on one of those big freighters out on the lake. When pretending to read last week’s National Enquirer or the local paper, she had a perfect view up and down the main street. She sat by that window for hours on end with old Merlin comfortably sleeping on the oval coil rug next to her chair. She just had to be a bit careful not to rock back on his tail. He didn’t like that very much.
Merlin and Mildred had become inseparable, as they grew older and wiser together. When Charlie left, the first thing she had done was to “rescue” the sad little puppy with its big brown eyes, the enormous paws and those two oversized floppy ears. The two of them had bonded immediately. They were both in need of a good friend. Merlin grew into a huge, lovable, slobbering companion with a constant want for attention.
Merlin had the added advantage of having grown into a fierce looking guard dog, which, to anyone who knew him, was as far from the truth as it could possibly be. It was nothing more than an act. The only thing Merlin ever chased after was the odd raccoon. He hated raccoons. He didn’t like squirrels much either, especially the aggressive ones. They chased him all over the back alley only to disappear up a tree.
Mildred had only one complaint about the apartment but then the low rent more than made up for that. The only way in was to climb that long outside wooden stairs up to the huge deck over top of the roof of Walter’s warehouse at the back of his store. It had helped when Walter painted those steps with that awful light green “no slip-no slide” pool paint he had left over from one of his projects. The new handrail he put up ten years ago had helped as well. Walter also did a great job of shoveling the snow out of the way on both the deck and the stairs in the wintertime. She never had to complain about that. Even the town had made life easier for Mildred when they had decided to break their own rules and put a couple of streetlights up in the back alley. They never put streetlights up in back alleys. She no longer had to use her flashlight when she made that short, half block walk home from her Tuesday night Rotary bingo games up at the town hall.
She loved Tuesday night bingo. It was just about the only time she ever went out anywhere these days, except for the three short walks, one right after breakfast, the second at around dinner time and the last one just before she and Merlin went to bed. They were all the same, down to the end of the alley and back with Merlin. She also had her weekly excursion to the grocery store. She used to walking there dragging her little trundle buggy behind her but it had started to get a bit too much. Now she had worked out a really good deal with Smart’s Taxi. One of his drivers would come and pick her up, usually on Thursdays, whenever they got a call for a fare in that end of town, and then drop her off at the grocery store. On their way back to the taxi stand they would pick her up at the store and drive her home with all her shopping. They even helped her with her bags, dragging them up that long outside staircase, across the deck and into the apartment dropping the bags off, right on her kitchen counter. When she tried to give them a tip they would never take her money. She would take out her little coin purse, open it ever so carefully and start, with shaky fingers, to count out a couple of quarters and a dime or two. The routine was established and would always end exactly the same way.
“Oh, Mildred, that’s o.k. We were in the neighborhood anyway. Glad to be of help. Just don’t sic Merlin on us.” They would say with a big broad grin and then bend down and scratch the lazy good for nothing dog vigorously behind the ears.
Mildred did not get along with everyone in town. She had a sharp tongue and was never afraid to use it. If she liked you there was nothing she and Merlin wouldn’t do for you but if you got on her bad side, and most folks did, then she would make it known exactly how she felt, not only to you, but to just about anyone who cared to listen. As Walter pointed out, Mildred did not miss much and she knew just about everyone in town. From her bay window overlooking Main Street she saw everything. She could even keep an eye on the comings and goings of the local police department. She knew all five officers by first name. Their front door was just half a block up the street. She had an opinion on just about everything from local politics to international events and hardly ever threw out her old copies of the National Enquirer. She kept stacks of them in her bedroom just in case. You just never knew when they would come in handy.
Every evening was pretty much the same. Just before bedtime, usually around ten or shortly after, she would take that last walk of the day, down the stairs to the back alley, up to the highway and straight back. She would supervise Merlin doing his business and somehow never remembering to bring his poop bag. Ten minutes later they were back in the apartment and twenty minutes after that she was in bed with Merlin comfortably curled up on top of the covers, at her feet.
Nothing ever happened down stairs at night but she always felt that she owed Walter something for giving her the job of nighttime security guard for his store. She kept a phone on her bedside table with Velma Whiteman’s number scribbled on a piece of paper and pinned on the wall right next to it. Velma was the dispatcher for all the emergency services in the town of Portsmouth. Like Mildred, she too kept a phone by the side of her bed, only Velma’s was an official one. It was red.
Merlin heard it first. He raised his head off Mildred’s ankles, and growled a bit. That growl soon turned into a low rumble that finally into a bark. That woke her up. The two of them listened carefully and sure enough, a few seconds later, they heard a thump down below. Something was happening in Walter’s Hardware Store. It was almost midnight, in the middle of the week. There shouldn’t have been any sounds coming from down there. A second thump and now Mildred was sure she heard some loud talking coming from the store. Her heart raced. She was wide awake. With a shaking hand she turned on the bedside lamp, reached for the phone and dialed the town emergency number. By the time Velma answered the phone both Mildred and Merlin were hiding under the covers with the phone.
“Velma, its Mildred,” she whispered. “Something is going on down stairs in the hardware store. I think someone is robbing the place.”
“Is that you Mildred? I can hardly hear you. Speak up. What’s the problem? It’s after midnight.”
“I don’t want them to know I’m calling you,” she said a bit louder still hiding under the covers. “They are robbing Walter’s store. You got to do something! There’s got to be a whole bunch of them. I can hear them talking.”
“What are they saying?” asked Velma.
“I don’t know! But do something. They sound dangerous!” By this time Mildred had thrown caution to the wind and was almost shouting into the phone. “You got to something!”
“OK, OK Mildred. Calm down. I’ll send Constable Oakwood over. He’s still on duty. He’ll be there in a few seconds. Lock your door and just relax. You got Merlin. He’ll look after you until Bill gets there.”
Mildred always locked her apartment door, but once she hung up she climbed out from under the covers, wrapped her well-worn dressing gown tightly around her and, barefoot on tippy toes, checked to make sure the door was locked. Merlin stayed under the covers.
She didn’t like Constable “little fat” Oakwood one bit. Of all the police officers on the town force he was probably the most useless. It was of absolutely no reassurance that he was the one on duty during this life-threatening emergency.
Bill Oakwood had been with the department for the past eight or 10 years and suffered from a Napoleon complex being just a touch over 5’ 5”. The other big fight Bill was always involved in was that ever since joining the department he had been gaining weight at a rate of about ten to fifteen pounds each year. The Chief kept after him to get fit but it had been a losing battle and now that he was nudging 300 pounds he was just about ready to give up his end of this never ending fight and just live with it. He had even begun talking about filing a Police Association grievance against the Chief to get him to stop his constant harassment about his weigh.
Velma’s call came in just about five minutes before Bill was scheduled to go off duty. It had, as usual, been a totally uneventful Wednesday evening. Tomorrow would be different, that was when the government welfare cheques hit town and the Brass Pole over at the “Pickle” would be packed. Bill put down his coffee and brushed the last bit of his Boston Cream Donut off his uniform and grabbed the phone. It was the red one, the one that matched the one on Velma’s night table.
“Yah, what is it Velma? I was just about to go home. It’s late you know.” Bill hated getting calls this close to quitting time.
“On your way home, stop by Mildred’s place. She thinks there is a burglary going on at Walter’s Hardware down stairs. She sounds frightened. See what you can do to calm her down.”
“Sure thing,” said Bill, hanging up and leaning back in his chair. He finished his coffee.
He finally got up, threw his belt over his shoulder, the one with all the stuff hanging from it. He hated wearing that belt. Everything always dug into the skin leaving little uncomfortable welts everywhere. There was just too much junk on it, the flashlight, the walky-talky, the night stick and the gun.
End of part one.